Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
For Ellen Knutson, it has always been about math and music.
Growing up in Des Plaines, Illinois, the now-tympanist/percussionist for the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra figured out early that working with numbers came naturally to her. As a member in a musical family, her progression in that discipline seemed almost predestined.
As a student at Maine Township High School West (which is also the alma mater of Hillary Clinton and Harrison Ford), Knutson was active in Civil Air Patrol and Girl Scouts while also taking part in band, orchestra, choir and other music programs. After graduating in 1961, she attended Beloit College, double-majoring in music and mathematics. She went on to teach math at both Beloit Catholic and Edgerton high schools.
Knutson’s music background also includes direction of several church choirs and the launching of the handbell program at Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville in the 1980s.
Among the honors bestowed upon Knutson for her service through music has been recognition as a founding member of the WEpac Board for the Edgerton Performing Arts Center, the Beloit College Alumni Award, recognition of service to the stateline area by the Beloit Chamber of Commerce and induction into the United Arts Hall of Fame in 2007.
Knutson’s family includes a daughter, Kim, who is a theater stage manager and lawyer in Los Angeles, and a son, Kurt, who is a computer programmer analyst and father of three. Both also are musicians.
To learn more about Knutson, search for her page on Facebook. To learn more about the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra, visit BeloitJanesvilleSymphony.org.
1. When and how did you first become interested in music? Music has always been part of my life. My father was in a solo quartet at 4th Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Mom and Dad sang in a madrigal group in the city. I heard they actually took my older brother to their concerts in a baby basket for a while. Since we had a piano in the house, I wanted to play it at an early age. When I figured out how to play “Chopsticks,” Mom decided I should take lessons. The lessons started when I was 5 and lasted for eight years. My two brothers, my sister and I all grew up singing in church choirs, just as our parents did. There was a time when we had at least one family member in each of the choirs at our church (adult, high school, junior high, boys and children’s). Obviously, our family culture is a musical one. At this time, my older brother is an active barbershopper, my younger brother is the tenor soloist in our home church, my sister is a church choir director and I retired from directing a church choir after 18 years. I could go on, but you get the picture.
2. You formerly taught math at Beloit Catholic and Edgerton high schools. What made you decide to pursue teaching math as a career? I always enjoyed math (got some flak about that from my friends), and I was often asked for help when kids were having trouble. One of them said, “You’re really good at this. You should be a math teacher.” It seemed like a good idea, and I loved it for 34 years.
3. I’ve often heard those with an affinity for math often make the best musicians. Do you agree and, if so, why? I do agree with that, but also the reverse. Often, music helps people be better students, too. Specifically, the disciplines have a lot in common. Basic music notation is mathematical: whole note, half note, quarter note, etc. It’s all based on numbers, including fractions. And the concentration and precision required is the same. I don’t know; they have both been part of me forever.
4. What is your astrological sign? Do you believe in astrology? I’m a Taurus. There is a lot of interesting truth in the definitions of each sign. My first college roommate was born one week after me, and we have much in common. She spent time in her adult life studying this topic and found that our differences are based on our “moon sign” or something. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about astrology, but once in a while, the predictions come true.
5. You play tympani, which are also known as kettledrums. What is it about this instrument you most enjoy, and why? Tympani are pitched drums. When I was learning to play them, I worked on playing melodies on them. I have to be in tune with what the orchestra is playing, and I enjoy being able to do that. Also, it’s fun!
6. You have seen the BJSO through all three of its conductors (Lewis Dalvit, Crawford Gates and Rob Tomaro). What have you learned about music from each? They were all three thoughtful, talented musicians and wonderful people. I learned conductors are high-level athletes. Each worked out in some sport: swim, tennis or running, as examples. When you consider they stand and use their bodies to bring emotion from the orchestra to the audience for long periods of time, you understand how athletic they have to be.
7. You directed countless high school musicals while teaching in both Beloit and Edgerton. What did you most enjoy about working with young people on these projects? Helping the students create their characters captured my interest immediately. We would connect them to the historical era, create a private life for them that was only behind the scenes and combine the students’ talents with the character’s personality. And for many, they learned about the classic musicals that many had never seen.
8. Do you have any pre-performance rituals before taking the stage with BJSO? I usually go to rehearsals and concerts about an hour early because I need to tune each drum to make sure the pitches are correct. Sometimes I go through more difficult passages one more time. Then I go out and talk to audience members who are early, just because I like to schmooze (is that a word?).
9. Who is your favorite Muppet? It’s a toss-up between Kermit and the Swedish Chef. Kermit because he’s Kermit, and the Chef because he cracks me up every time.
10. People would be surprised to know that I: Swam in water ballet from seventh grade through high school. We were lucky to have the right gym teacher in junior high who taught us how to swim gracefully and made us a team.
11. Share something that people should know about tympani but most likely don’t? Tympani are pitched drums, as I said earlier. I have to change the notes on each drum with a pedal at its base. When I bend down to hear the pitch, some people have asked me why I’m smelling the drum. But I’m listening so the note is perfect.
12. Do you have a green thumb? No. I used to kill plants, even cactus. But these days, I have a few house plants that have survived me. And perennials are the answer to outside plants for me.
13. What are some of your favorite musical pieces to perform on tympani? Tchaikovsky’s “5th Symphony” is fun to play, but I really enjoy playing almost anything. We premiered Crawford Gates’ “Wisconsin Profiles” long ago. I just love playing.
14. You have taken part in a series of “petting zoos” as they pertain to introducing young people to percussion instruments. Why do you find these important? Kids like to hit drums, but there are many other percussion instruments they discover are interesting. The more they know, the more choices they have, and the more they can enjoy the music they hear.
15. How many different types of tympani are there, and what is each used for? The difference is in size, and that has to do with the pitches each can sound. The bigger the drum is, the lower the sound. Sometimes I only need two, but I have played pieces that require five or six or actually need two players because the composer created duets in the part. A standard set is four sizes.
16. What is the most challenging aspect of playing tympani? Actually, since the tympani are placed near the back of the orchestra (so the other players can hear what they are doing), the challenge is to time my notes so they sound with the conductor’s beat. You learn to anticipate, but not too much.
17. Which of the five senses would you say is your strongest? I expect it is hearing. Besides the obvious music connection, I could usually hear anything any student said anywhere in my classroom. It used to freak them out when I could answer a question they whispered to a neighbor.
18. As someone who enjoys both music and mathematics, would you say you tend to think more spatially or analytically? In my family, the corridor between right and left brain seems to be open. I usually come out even on those tests. I learned with both and taught with both.
19. At the grocery store, what item always goes in your cart whether you need it or not? Something in the dark chocolate food group. No explanation needed.
20. You have been a member of BJSO for more than 50 years. To what do you credit your longevity? I started playing in BJSO when I was a sophomore at Beloit College. Taking time out to have my children, I guess I have played in the same symphony for 56 years. Yikes! I seem to be a fixture. As long as I can play the music, I hope they will let me. (There aren’t many places that need a tympanist.)